NOW Lebanon’s Summer Reading List

The United Nations declared Beirut this year’s World Book Capital, an honor bestowed in part to introduce the world to Lebanese literature and to encourage reading and writing in Lebanon. 

Lebanon, with all its complexity, has fuelled the imaginations of many authors. Well known are the books centered on political analysis, but less familiar are the novels and stories that have captured the essence of this place we know and love.

In the spirit of this honor, NOW brings you reading recommendations of remarkable novels based in this fascinating country. Crack open these volumes under the shining sun, and enjoy the peace of summer reading.

If you would like to suggest any books for inclusion on this list, please email maya.khourchid@nowlebanon.com

Maya Zankoul’s Amalgam
By Maya Zankoul, 2009

Maya’s Amalgam is a popular Lebanese graphic blog, and so Maya Zankoul’s avid followers will probably find her new book, Maya Zankoul’s Amalgam, pretty familiar. Her blog features her musings, which are frequently in the form of quixotic stabs at solving interminable irritations familiar to anyone who is living or has lived in Lebanon. She skewers women who have excessive plastic surgery done, the traffic and incessant honking of service drivers. In a particularly clever series, she mocks her running engagement with a Burberry-clad businesswoman, for whom Maya is working as a freelancer. From her hilarious encounters she draws short conclusions on life and Lebanon. The book is highly amusing and a recommended quick read for anyone not acquainted with her blog, or for those looking for a permanent version to show friends and family. And unlike reading them off a laptop, you can enjoy this version of Maya’s animated stories at the beach.

The Hakawati
by Rabih Alameddine, 2008

The Hakawati is Rabih Alameddine’s fourth book, and like his third, I, The Divine, it is based in Beirut. The narrator, Osama al-Kharrat, returns from America to his father’s deathbed in Lebanon’s capital. The city barely resembles the Beirut that Osama knew. As a form of comfort for both the loss of the city and that of his father, Osama, his friends and his family exchange tales, gossip and stories.
Osama’s grandfather was a hakawati, a storyteller, and his older stories from the fall of the Ottoman Empire are interwoven with classic tales of the ancient Middle East and the more contemporary: a sister’s wedding, work at the family’s car dealership and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Hakawati took home the Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year award in 2008 and has won praise from author Amy Tan and the New York Times.

Brownies and Kalashnikovs
by Fadia Basrawi, 2009

Pegged as a Saudi woman’s memoir of growing up in two different Middle Easts, first in Saudi Arabia and then in war-torn Beirut, Basrawi’s book gives the reader a glimpse into her vastly different lives.

The author grew up in a complex owned by the Arabian American Oil Company Aramco in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where, despite its location in the strict Wahabi kingdom, life goes on as in the prototypical American town. Basrawi then moves to attend high school in Beirut, where she eventually falls in love with a Lebanese journalist and raises five children as the civil war rages in the background. The book cover does use the tired cliché “Paris of the Middle East,” but nevertheless, this personal account of life during the civil war proves unique and interesting.
Season of Betrayal
by Margret Lowrie Robertson, 2007

With Season of Betrayal, Marget Lowrie Robertson transforms from a foreign correspondent to a novelist. While her prior occupation as a CBS Radio reporter in Beirut ensures the reader a certain level of historical accuracy, she describes political entities such as Hezbollah – an embryonic organization during the civil war, when the book is set – as if she was writing a news piece.
The protagonist, Lara McCauley, follows her war-correspondent husband to Beirut in the early 1980s, where their marriage begins to fall apart in sync with the country. The story climaxes with the 1983 bombing of the US Marine Barracks, which killed 241 American and 58 French soldiers.

Bliss Street
by Kris Kenway, 2003

This remarkable novel manages to capture the country and its most typical characters without verging on the cliché. An English producer lands in Beirut by accident as his flight is diverted, and he ends up mixed in the country’s rhythm.

When he falls in love with Maya, a young Lebanese woman, they run into obstacles threatening their relationship: he is foreign, society is still concerned with “good families”, relationships prior to marriage are discouraged, and premarital sex is outright condemned – and Beirut neighbors love to gossip.

The protagonist also meets Hassan, whom the author uses to introduce the audience to a wider view of Lebanon. The novel takes place in 2000, the year Israel withdrew from South Lebanon, and Hassan’s brother had been held in Khiam – the infamous Israeli jail in the occupied south.
Kenway deftly mixes a good story with great details; the ubiquitous “dekkanehs”, Beirut’s nouveau-riche and the condescension with which they treat their domestic workers, and, perhaps most impressively, the vibrant Beirut nightlife, which the author describes without resorting to the exasperating “Lebanese party to death in deadly political situations” narrative.

Beirut Blues
by Hanin Al-Shaykh, 1996

Beirut Blues is Hanin Al-Shaykh’s third novel, following on the heels of the critically acclaimed Story of Zahra. The author uses unsent letters written by her narrator, Asmaran, to illustrate Beirut’s fall from its glory days to its postwar bleakness. Yet the novel is by no means a depressed view of the country; even at its worst the narrator still sees the beauty of the city and its resounding feeling of hominess.

Asmaran writes alternatively as a daughter, friend, lover and resident of the city, and her letters are addressed friends, family, the city itself and the war.

The cathartic letters slowly piece together Asmaran’s life while giving the reader a poignant view of Beirut at different points of time.

I, The Divine – A Novel in First Chapters
by Rabih Alameddine, 2002

Rabih Alameddine’s third novel is an assembly of failed attempts at writing a memoir by the fictional Sarah Nour El-Din. She tries writing in English and French, starting at different points in her life, but she never gets beyond the first chapter.

This non-linear style pulls together the narrator’s story in the same manner that Lebanon’s post-1975 history has been written: a patchwork of excerpts. This symbolism of this literary structure is perhaps as interesting as the protagonist’s story.
Din’s character slowly reveals the challenge faced by emigrants of integrating two cultures, and their return home is reflected in the character, whose father is Lebanese and mother American. Din moves to New York following her marriage, and her struggle of making sense of her two lives underscores many of her ‘chapter ones’.

De Niro’s Game
by Rawi Hage, 2006

Hage’s first novel, which was critically acclaimed when released in 2006, follows the lives of two young men growing up in East Beirut during the civil war. Bassam and George, each tied in their own way to the suffering, violence and madness play out on their neighborhood’s streets, end up parting ways and finding few of their questions answered.

The book is written in a way that makes it at times difficult to read, but therein lies its power: the tragedy and senselessness of the war and the desperation felt by the young trapped in it is conveyed masterfully in Hage’s run-on sentences and disturbing rants.  Perhaps better than any other book, Hage uses the words with which he tells the story to convey a sense of the war that is rarely perceived in other novels or nonfiction works.  This approach lets the reader come to comprehend why atrocities were committed, because the psychoses of conflict are so masterfully laid down in print.

Lebanon, with all its complexity, has fuelled the imaginations of many authors.

  • rony

    luka, JJ thnx for the advice. I picked up a few books a little while ago, B as in Beirut on reccomendation, The Beloved K Gebran for the collection, and a couple of Malloof books. Will make sure i have alook for your reccomendations

    September 13, 2009

  • luka

    rony, the thg is wiz z latest books, i mean books coming out in z past few years, let's just say: they're a bit too light as books, u might wanna go more into classical 1es such as: joumana by farjallah hayek - being arab by samir kassir - the rock of tanios: amin maalou - brike lane: monica ali..and season of migration to the north by al-tayyib saleh..

    August 29, 2009

  • Julie Anne Zein

    I agree with rony that the list, in the main, consists of totally stereotyped books. The best-written literature appeals to universal values. Most of the books on the list don't fit that criteria. Summer reading does not have to be 'trashy' - Pasterrnak can also be read on the beach! The civil war literature of Lebanon is becoming an industry, just as the Holocaust literature became an industry. Try Hamza Bogary's "The Sheltered Quarter" (Saqifat al-Safa). Whatever was published just yesterday, is on the best seller list, and appeals to a mass-readership fed on a diet of television and entertainment, is bound to be cheap journalistic-type trash.

    August 25, 2009

  • rony

    can anyone recommend some non-stereotypical books? this list is mostly as posted previously either cliche or written for a foreign audience they all reek of "not without my daughter", blase.

    August 23, 2009

  • diala

    I definitely agree with Luka about De Niros' Game. Pretentious, sensational writing. I, however, loved I, the Divine.

    August 4, 2009

  • luka

    i personally thought that DE NIRO'S GAME is a waste of time and energy.. tis a book full of cliches. du deja vu. and then there's this thg bout it: u just don't feel it's real and true...i did not like it @all, but that's only me.

    July 30, 2009

  • halim

    I also agree on the fact that Kenway's book is a compilation of cliches... worst book ever read since a long time...

    July 24, 2009

  • richard

    I didn't finish Bliss Street, but i can definitely agree with the comment below, because what i did read was a pile of typical orientalist clichés. the story and descriptions were all about fulfilling the false perceptions of a foreign reader.

    July 21, 2009

  • ch

    Bliss Street by Kris Kenway, 2003 This remarkable novel manages to capture the country and its most typical characters without verging on the cliché. An English producer lands in Beirut by accident as his flight is diverted, and he ends up mixed in the country’s rhythm. I am sorry but this was terrible and featured some of the most unimaginative cliches....

    July 15, 2009